It isn’t rocket science. It’s blackening a piece of fish meat. Just char the heck out of with Tony’s and butter right? Wrong. While the blackening style frequents menus and dinner tables, this method of cooking should be carefully undertaken to avoid ruining an otherwise perfectly planned meal. Follow a few basic principles about blackening seafood, and you will never served an over-salted fillet or crustacean to an unsuspecting victim.
1. Fresh is a Requirement, Not Optional
I have come to appreciate the importance of this tip more and more living away from the Gulf Coast. Every meal begins at the grocery store or the ice chest. If that fillet you picked up from the local shop isn’t pink and translucent, it wasn’t worth the trouble. A good indication of the freshness of a fish is to look at the eyes. If they are grey and blood shot, don’t even bother wasting money. Additionally, fish should never smell like “fish.” A truly fresh piece of meat still has a bright red bloodline on the skin surface with almost no smell. The same care should be taken with shrimp. Always buy raw, Gulf shrimp that have been caught locally and never frozen.
If you catch your own fish, you are in luck. But, this is only true if you don’t ruin it. Freezing never produces a great fillet for blackening or cooking, unless it’s vacuum packed. Grey and pale-white fish meat rarely lives up to the unfrozen quality of a recent catch. I know this is unavoidable sometimes if you have an excess of fish. But, if you can avoid it, keep those bags of fillets on ice. At only a few degrees above freezing temperature, an ice-filled cooler of seafood will keep for up to a week. There are some great insulated coolers on the market that will hold ice for a long period of time, reducing the hassle of purchasing multiple bags of ice.
Finally, the best fillets for this technique should be white-meated fish that are firm and will not break apart with the slightest movement. If that fish is falling apart as a result of just handling it raw, it’s going to be problematic. Excellent species include redfish, speckled trout, catfish, and small snapper.
2. The Tools of the Trade
I prefer to use cookware that can hold lots of heat and distributes it evenly. For some, copper or ceramic is the preferred material. Personally, I prefer to use cast iron skillets. A key to getting a great blackening is preheating the pan adequately, avoiding strange, uneven cooking. Set the stove top to medium heat and wait until the oil is rippling. This allows the fillet to sear with a nice crust evenly on the outside.
3. The Oils, Trust Me, It’s Good For You
I usually put a good 1/8 inch layer of olive oil on the bottom of the pan after the heat has risen on the surface. I also add a tablespoon of butter to provide some additional flavor. Allow this to melt and heat. When prepping fillets, make sure you wash them well with water under the sink. This removes any dirt, scales, or grime left over from the cleaning process. Then, pat the fillets dry. Dry the fillets. Finally, dry the fillets. This is often a skipped step, and arguably the most important detail. A dry surface prevents the seasoning from washing off immediately when you place it on the hot surface to cook. It allows the surface of the meat to char and blacken. A layer of extra water will only inhibit the process.
4. Seasoning not Salting
A salty fillet is a crime, and should be punishable. I avoid this by lightly seasoning one side with Tony Chachere’s. Then, I use Chef Preudhomme’s STEAK Magic, not his Redfish Blackening seasoning. I find the flavors much more pronounced in this mixture. You can try a number of good seasonings out there. Coat the fillets generously on both sides. These seasonings, unlike Tony’s, really don’t have salt in them, so don’t be afraid. If in doubt, taste the mixture to be sure.
5. The Fish Will Speak to You
I’m not kidding. After a little practice, you will know how to treat the fillet right. When it is ready to flip, it should lift off a well-seasoned and oiled pan very easily without falling apart. You should see the outside edges lifting slightly from the pan. The tail end of fillet’s will always cook much quicker, and act as an indicator. Keeping this in mind, angle the fillets appropriately, tail side out.
The fillet thickness is crucial to this method of cooking. If the fillet is too thick, more than an inch-and-a-half, it will not cook through until you’ve overcooked the outside. I usually avoid this by allowing the meat to sit at room temperature for a little while (15-20 minutes). Similarly, I allow shrimp to sit outside the frig for about 10 minutes. This allows the center to warm a little and avoid a headache.
These tips will make you look like an authentic Creole chef. It may take some trial and error, but once perfected you can successfully cook consistently using this method. This is a versatile style, and can be utilized to make tacos, poboys, or as a protein served over rice. As an added bonus, remoulade is excellent drizzled over the top or served as a dipping condiment (most southern stores stock the Louisiana-brand, and I’ve even found it in Pittsburgh). So the next time you want to serve a Cajun-style meal to friends and family, I hope these quick pointers will come in handy!